How will your story connect to the community?

community of people on a white background (Depositphotos)

By Sammy Sussman

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I had always heard investigative reporting discussed in terms of corporate and government accountability. Reporters seek the information that others have overlooked or intentionally sought to suppress. 

We pursue a topic over weeks or months, reaching out to every potential source and obtaining any available documents before offering the public the most complete, accurate understanding we can produce. In many instances, we try to force those in power to answer for their decisions. In a few instances, our sustained focus on a neglected topic leads to rapid policy change.

But at an IRE panel discussion, “Investigative Journalism Using Community Engagement,” Ashley Alvarado, Anita Li, Anjali Tsui and Terry Parris Jr. talked about engaged journalism. I heard investigative reporting discussed in different terms. The panelists spoke of “information needs” and of providing vital information to the community. Almost all their stories, they said, began as conversations with local community members. 

Alvardo, of Southern California Public Radio, said she always first asks the question: “Who is most affected by this issue, and what information do they need to be their best advocates?” 

Sometimes, understanding of the community affects the means by which the story is communicated. 

“I think about how [the story] in itself will connect back to the community in some way,” said Parris, engagement editor at The City.

As I tried to imagine myself pursuing this level of community engagement in my reporting, I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable. I’ve frequently been told as a student reporter to ignore negative reader comments. Our newsroom at The Michigan Daily takes on some very difficult stories, some of which have led to significant changes in university policy and personnel. 

We’re confident that our stories are important and that we’ve uncovered information that needs to be part of the public conversation. Nevertheless, we sometimes receive harsh comments from students, parents and faculty. 

But my role as a music student came into conflict with my role as a student reporter investigating someone in the music school, and I remember at least one instance in which someone’s comments left me feeling unsafe. I soon stopped tracking the responses to my stories.

I also feared that by engaging with community members early in the reporting process, I would begin to shape my reporting to meet the expectations set by readers. Rather than offering the public the most accurate information, I might begin to offer only the information that I believed my readers were seeking. I might begin to cut corners and manipulate narratives to fit the framing offered by my readership.

But during Ken Ward Jr., Debbie Blankenship and Carla Minet’s discussion of local reporting at the conference later Tuesday, June, 15, each used similar language to discuss their work. Their outlets served their respective communities by offering comprehensive coverage of issues that concerned their readership. 

Though they didn’t actively engage with their readership before beginning reporting on any specific topic, they approached their coverage with general ideas about the topics that interested their readers. They gained the trust of their readers by offering reporting about issues that actively affected their lives. 

I heard the term “information need” used again and again as they discussed their work.

“We started … by asking our community what they felt their information gaps were,” said Ward, of the Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia. “You can just simply phrase it as ‘help us investigate.’ ”

We live in a fraught time for investigative reporting. Confidence in the media continues to plummet. For all but the few national outlets that have sustainable subscription-driven revenue models, the future looks bleak. And all takes place against the hardening backdrop of political polarization and media echo chambers. 

Yet as this year’s conference draws to a close, I’m left feeling hopeful at the prospects of information need-based local reporting to break through these frightening trends. By viewing our work through this lens and holding ourselves to this standard, I hope that we can begin to earn back the trust that we’ve lost over the past few decades.